Local Obituaries

Bruce Cotton, retired executive at Jerrico, Long John Silver's and Cracker Barrel, dies at 84

Bruce Cotton
Bruce Cotton Photo submitted

Bruce Cotton, a spokesman and executive for companies such as Jerrico, Long John Silver's and Cracker Barrel, died Wednesday at Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore. He was 84.

Warren Rosenthal, who built Jerrico and Long John Silver's into food-industry powers, hired Cotton in the mid-1970s to fill a newly created position of director of public affairs. Cotton stayed with Long John Silver's for 22 years.

Jerrico had launched Long John Silver's in 1969 in Lexington. During his time with the company, Cotton saw Long John Silver's become the No. 1 quick-serve seafood restaurant in the country.

As director of public affairs, Cotton worked with industry trade groups, tracked proposed laws and regulations that might affect restaurants, and lobbied state legislators and members of Congress.

Cotton "was a delightful fellow and he's going to be missed," Rosenthal said Thursday. "He had a great sense of humor and he was very bright. He was just a person that was involved and who worked hard at what he did."

Cotton was president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in 1987 when it released a strategic plan called Project 21, which called for major education reforms, investments in infrastructure, and allowing governors to run for a second term. Many of the report's recommendations eventually came to pass.

"He was a wonderfully outgoing and dynamic guy who left his fingerprints on many of the good things that have happened in Kentucky," said David Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber.

Cotton left Long John Silver's in 1997 to become vice president of government relations for Cracker Barrel. He remained in Lexington for that position and did not go to the Cracker Barrel headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn. He retired from Cracker Barrel in 2011.

Born March 8, 1931, in Grant County, Cotton grew up on a family farm near Dry Ridge where his father was a banker and one of the state's leading breeders of Southdown sheep and Angus cattle.

Cotton won several Kentucky State Fair awards for showing livestock. He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1952 with a degree in agriculture, and had planned to become a farmer raising cattle, hogs and tobacco.

After graduation, Cotton served in the Air Force and spent a year in Korea. He left the service in 1954 and that year married his college sweetheart, Mary Blanton Williams. (He served in the Air Force Reserve for 28 years and attained the rank of colonel.)

Cotton joined Transylvania University in 1958 as the vice president for development, directing the school's fund-raising efforts and student recruitment. He worked at Transylvania for more than 14 years.

He briefly worked with a company that planned to develop upscale residential subdivisions on land then being used for farming. But in the mid-1970s he contacted Rosenthal, chairman of Jerrico, whom he had known for many years, about a position with the restaurant company.

In 2001, Cotton was inducted into the International Franchise Association's Hall of Fame; other inductees include Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Ray Kroc of McDonald's and Dave Thomas of Wendy's.

Cotton held national positions, such as president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants; chairman of the International Franchise Association; chairman of Ocean Trust, an organization that works to sustain the oceans and coastal communities; vice president of the National Fisheries Institute; and a member of the labor policy committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In 1980, he was a delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business.

Closer to home, Cotton served as chairman of the Kentucky Restaurant Association and was on the boards of numerous civic groups, clubs, foundations and higher education institutions.

Aside from his wife, survivors include a son, John, of Lexington. A daughter, Lucy Wheeler, preceded him in death.

The family asks that donations go to the Building Fund of Central Christian Church, Lexington Rotary Club Foundation or Transylvania University.

The funeral will be 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Central Christian Church in Lexington.

Visitation will be 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the church. Burial will be in Lexington Cemetery.

Milward-Broadway is in charge of arrangements.